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Mixed signals abound in Pack Place showdown

Marc HuntRS

City backpedals; PP Board goes on high alert; employees expect pink slips

           By Roger McCredie- As has been the case for months, what is actually happening at the city’s Pack Place Cultural Center depends on who’s being asked.  And the narrative seems to change from hour to hour.

Both city officials and the Chairman of the Pack Place Board of Directors are insisting that one way or another Pack Place will continue to operate after the 60-day “extension” — proposed by the city and reluctantly approved by the Pack Place board last week — for accepting take-‘em-or-leave-‘em direct leases between the city and the three Pack Place members nonprofits: the Asheville Art Museum, Diana Wortham Theatre, and the Colburn Earth Sciences Museum.

But the claims that there will continue to be a Pack Place in some form or other seemed  little consolation to the ten regular Pack Place employees, who say that, all finagling and posturing aside,  they will be out of their jobs as of August 1, the day after the extension is up.

            A recap: what this is all about

                        The city owns the ground on which the Pack Place building stands – not the building itself –and leases that land to Pack Place for $10 per year. The current ten-year lease with the city will expire May 31.  Ordinarily renewing the lease along the same lines would be nothing more than a formality.  But tucked away in that otherwise innocuous document is a clause which empowers the city to take over the Pack Place building – without compensation — if its management fails to exercise due diligence in making repairs.  In late January, City Manager Gary Jackson unexpectedly played that card, demanding that Pack Place either pay the city $800,000 in compensation for alleged neglected repairs to the building or be declared in default and face a city takeover.

At a special board meeting on February 18, Architect Barbara Field,  a board member who supervised the Pack Place building project, identified Jackson’s list of “neglected maintenance” as a “wish list” of capital improvements she had drawn up herself.  She said the city had stolen her work, distorted it and was attempting to use it as a ruse to declare Pack Place in default so that the city could gain control of it for its own purposes and for free.  The key step in this process would be to negotiate direct leases with each of the Pack Place tenants.  (The Art Museum has long pushed for such an arrangement.) Mayor Esther Manheimer softened the city’s line by saying it was prepared to negotiate.

But Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, who sits on the Pack Place board as liaison for city council, said the terms of Jackson’s letter still stood – and that in fact the city would approve no further leases along the present lines.  The only acceptable arrangement would be direct leases between the city and individual Pack Place tenants.  (The art museum, which it turned out had been carrying on its own lease dialog with the city for some time, eagerly accepted the idea.  Other Pack Place board members pointedly questioned the city’s right, under the present lease, to be dictating terms and issuing ultimatums at all.)  In March, Pack Place atty. Mary Robinson sent city special counsel Fred Barbour a letter pointing out that Pack Place had at all times maintained its physical plant, most recently adding a new roof. She called Jackson’s claims “completely groundless.”


The city attacks; Pack Place mans the battlements

            Undaunted, Hunt appeared at the regular Pack Place board meeting April 9 and said the city had held a special closed meeting the night before and “decided” to offer the Pack Place tenants a 60-day extension – until July 31 – to review and accept separate direct leases with the city and “tie up loose ends” with the Pack Place board, which would be left out of the equation altogether and would be reduced in future to a sort of liaison committee with little if any actual authority.

Hunt demanded an up-or-down vote on this proposal then and there.  Could the board members see a copy of the city’s proposal?  No, Hunt said, it was verbal.  What was the vote breakdown?  There was none because there was no vote, Hunt said, it was a verbal agreement in an informal meeting. What exactly was the wording of it?  “I can’t remember any particular phrase,” Hunt said, but he repeated that the city was offering Pack Place an additional 60 days to phase itself out and have its members negotiate directly with the city.  Board member David Brown, together with board chairman Edward Hay, asked whether the board could vote on the 60-day extension and piggyback a motion to renew the old lease – still in effect for the moment – for another ten years.  Out of the question, said Hunt.  If the board refused the 60-day grace period offer, the city would allow the provisions of Jackson’s letter to kick in effective June 1.

In the end, the Pack Place board voted to accept the city’s 60-day extension as presented, although Hay said, “I am a little put off by the city’s reluctance to see us exercise our right to renew the lease [as is].  I feel very uncomfortable with that.” The deadline for Pack Place to insist on its right to attempt to renew the lease would be April 30.

But Hunt continued to stand his ground.  “The reasons for issuing [Jackson’s] letter have not changed,” he said.  Then, addressing the elephant in the room, he said, “the city is not eager to see this go to litigation.  We do not want to evict anybody.”

But although he succeeded in bending the Pack Place board to the city’s will, insiders said, Hunt could have overreached himself legally by basing his demands on a nonwritten offer that amounted to hearsay, and which the city lacked authority to be making in the first place.

In an e-mail to his board members, Hay said Robinson’s legal opinion was that the Hunt’s proposal did in fact require a formal resolution to be valid.  Accordingly, Hay said, the city intends to take that action at its meeting on April 22, and he has called an emergency board meeting in case the city somehow fails to rubber-stamp Hunt’s resolution. In that case, Hay’s e-mail reads, “we will consider a new exercise of our right to renew the lease at the special meeting.”  Hay has not indicated whether the board would actually use its 60-day extension to prepare a lawsuit.

The human side

            Caught in the corporate crossfire are those who work for, or in, Pack Place.  Whatever the future of Pack Place may be, their own futures are on the line right now.

Pack Place business manager Heather Nelson confirmed to the Tribune that she has been instructed by Hay to begin drawing up a list of “transitional issues,” including canceling contracts, closing Pack Place accounts and calculating separation pay.

“That certainly sounds as though all the decisions have already been made,” Nelson said.  “Also, it’s difficult for me to do – I have not been included in any of the [Pack Place] executive committee meetings and I don’t know if the EC even takes minutes.”

A single mother of a teenage daughter already looking at colleges, Nelson said she may seek some freelance accounting opportunities short-term, “and I can always draw unemployment – that will be a new experience.”  Nelson has worked for Pack Place twelve years, most of her working life.

Tom Chalmers, the center’s Director of Visitor Services, likewise is having to look beyond Pack Place.  He says he is frustrated that the public is not more aware of the cost of a Pack Place takeover in human terms.  “The mainstream media are just talking to the city,” he said, “and the Citizen-Times is actually editorializing in its news stories, saying Pack Place has served its purpose.  That’s very hurtful.”

Neither the Citizen Times nor WLOS-TV has covered any of the meetings dealing with the Pack Place duel.

Meanwhile, Pack Place’s smallest tenant, the Colburn Earth Sciences Museum, has served notice last week that its position has become untenable and that it appears to have no choice but to leave Pack Place.

Vice Mayor to Tribune: ‘Get lost.’

            Late last week the Tribune received reports from two sources not connected with either Pack Place or the city, that the city intended to make a formal resolution out of Hunt’s ultimatum to the Pack Place board (see above) and also that the direct leases for the Pack Place tenants, bypassing the Pack Place board, had already been issued. The Tribune sought confirmation on these points from Manheimer and Hunt.

The mayor responded first, saying, “…  any action by the council regarding the lease, whether it be renewal or extension, must be taken in open session,” which seemed directly at odds with Hunt’s do-it-now vote request at the Pack Place meeting.

About an hour later, Hunt responded to the same e-mail.  His only comment was, “You may check with the city’s public information office for these and other questions going forward.”

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